Various Artists: Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984
Not much music got out of South Africa in the late apartheid era, but Hot Chocolate and Keith Sweat must have gotten in.
In order to appreciate Boogie Breakdown: South African Synth Disco 1980-1984 fully, a brief bit of history is necessary. During the apartheid era, the United Nations sanctioned an embargo on South Africa. It was a military arms embargo but also a cultural embargo, meaning that not much South African popular art was exported during that time. It is safe to say, then, that the music featured on Boogie Breakdown has rarely been heard outside of South Africa.
But the current age of crate-digging and rare groove scouring has allowed this music to make it out of the cultural dustbin. And these 12 tracks, two each from six different acts, make it clear that if South African music didn’t often make it out, Western music surely made it in.
With a few exceptions, the songs on Boogie Breakdown could be lost late disco-era recordings from New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, maybe even London or Paris. The singing is all in English, and the music is as slick and cleanly-produced as anything from the era.
As its subtitle suggests, the early 1980s marked a time when synthesizers and drum machines were becoming ever more prevalent in disco. The result was a sound that was definitely less cheesy and more modern. Especially given the current ‘80s-centric musical climate, most of Boogie Breakdown holds up pretty well.
Don’t expect a lot of four-on-the-floor stompers. This stuff is more diverse than that. The Cannibals’ “Hey Tonight” is rooted in thick, midtempo funk, with some ponderous, proggy guitars mixed in, too. The middle breakdown actually sounds like Pink Floyd. Not something you’d expect from an album called “Boogie Breakdown”. Of course, there are squiggly P-Funk-style synths and thumb-popping bass, too.
The one straight-up dance track is Harari’s “Party”. It’s a good one, too. Chicken scratch guitar, phased-out bass, groovy Clavinet, and chanted vocals come together in a way that’s almost as mean as Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”.
As Boogie Breakdown progresses, things quickly move toward a more smoothed-out sound that was surely influenced by European synth pop and American R&B. Some tracks even seem like doppelgangers of contemporaneous American material. Don Laka’s “Let’s Move the Night” sounds like Keith Sweat covering Ministry’s “Work for Love”, while Neville Nash’s “Perfect Love” sounds more than a little like Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”.
If there are any hints this music was not produced in the Northern Hemisphere, it comes in the form of Benjamin Ball’s patois-infused, dancehall-style “Flash a Flashlight”. It’s interesting enough to make you wish the compilers of Boogie Breakdown had dug a little deeper for more of this type of diversity… assuming it was there to be found. In any case, the album closes with two synth-lite tracks from Al Etto which are more Billy Ocean than Cameo, more DeBarge than Prince.
Even in South Africa, those synths eventually got the best of everyone.